Celebrate Social Security, Don't Cut It

Today, Americans celebrate the 80th anniversary of Social Security, the nation's most successful anti-poverty program in its history. Social Security is crucial to many people of color, such as Native Americans like myself. Almost half of elderly, unmarried Native people rely on Social Security for 90 percent or more of their income. Even though Social Security is keeping about 27 million people out of poverty, several presidential candidates want to build their platform around dismantling Social Security, often targeting Social Security Disability Insurance.

The SSDI Trust Fund is facing a funding shortfall -- which would cut benefits by 20 percent -- because the Republican-controlled House passed a rule change making it more difficult for Congress to shift resources to the SSDI trust fund. Many political leaders seek to undermine SSDI as a way to force more fundamental changes to the Social Security system.

Sen. Rand Paul has openly mocked SSDI recipients, saying that "Over half the people on disability are either anxious or their back hurts." (He's wrong by the way) Gov. Chris Christie implies that SSDI recipients just need a push to get back to work. They are perpetuating a false narrative about SSDI recipients being freeloaders. Many recipients suffer with severe impairments and illnesses while navigating a difficult system with requirements that are among the most stringent in the world. I know because I am one of these recipients.

I have epilepsy and Post Traumatic Stress Disorder, and in 2012, I had a stroke that left me permanently disabled and unable to work. I applied for SSDI and was initially denied. I embarked on the long, arduous process to appeal the decision.

During this time, my husband and I relied on his Social Security retirement of $291 and the little amount he picked up from odd jobs. Every month we found ourselves worried that we would not make it through the month. The constant stress exacerbating both my epilepsy and PTSD.

Two years after I applied for SSDI, my application was finally approved. I now receive $733 a month, but even with my husband's retirement, his income from odd jobs and selling aluminum cans, we are barely able to pay our rent.

So no, I'm not living in the lap of luxury with a fake injury. My story is not unique: young workers today have a one-in-three chance of either dying or needing SSDI before reaching the Social Security Retirement age of 67. I'm barely getting by with a benefit I have earned - not an entitlement.

Social Security is often talked about by candidates on both sides of the fence as an 'entitlement' but the fact of the matter is that Social Security Retirement and SSDI is coverage that workers like myself have earned. Workers and employers pay 6.2% of their pay into the system with 5.3% going to the Old Age and Survivors Insurance (OASI) and 0.9% going to the Disability Trust Fund. A simple reallocation of that rate - as Congress has done 11 times in recent decades - would prevent a devastating 20% benefit cut next year, but Congress so far has refused to make this change.

Another policy that would strengthen both Social Security Retirement and SSDI programs would be scrapping the cap on the payroll tax. Currently, any income above $118,500 is exempt from the Social Security payroll tax, meaning billionaires are not paying their fair share. If this cap was eliminated, Social Security would be solvent for decades to come.

As we celebrate the upcoming anniversary of Social Security, be wary of the "sky-is-falling" rhetoric about Social Security you will inevitably hear from presidential candidates, many of whom are courting donors with deep pockets and little interest in supporting Social Security.

We need all of our presidential candidates to say clearly how they stand on Social Security. At the very least both Sen. Paul and Gov. Christie have made their contempt for Social Security clear. Former Secretary Hillary Clinton has only said that she supports enhancing Social Security, but while a senator, she voted against scrapping the cap. Americans need clear Social Security policy proposals from all presidential candidates.

Remember, both Social Security Retirement and SSDI are lifelines for millions of Americans and any cuts to the already meager benefits would be devastating. SSDI benefits average $1,140 a month, just over the federal poverty level for a single person. While the program's benefits are modest, it keeps more than four million people with disabilities out of poverty each year. For 80 percent of beneficiaries, SSDI is their main source of income.

I do agree with Gov. Christie and Sen. Paul on one point: Social Security needs reform. But, that reform should take place in the form of expansion not cuts. Like millions of other Americans, Social Security is a lifeline for my family, but without an expansion, it is an increasingly fraying one.